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Intentionally Spilling Oil in the North Sea

Aug 11, 2014 11:15 AM EDT
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Researchers have recently released oil in part of the North Sea as a part of a contained experiment to better understand exactly what happens within the first few days of a spill. This, they claim, will provide them valuable insight in how to better mitigate an oil spill's adverse effects.

The results of this unusual field study were published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

According to the study's authors, prior to their work, there had been no extensive scientific observations about the first day of a spill, as it often took up to a week for researchers to learn about and then travel to an accidental oil spill, such as the 1990's Exxon Valdez catastrophe.

In order to collect this elusive and valuable data on the immediate aftermath of a spill, researchers collaborated with specialists from the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat to recreate a four cubic meter oil spill in the North Sea 124 miles (200 km) off the coast of the Netherlands. To ensure that the environmental impact of this study was not too severe, they chose a region that had already been on the decline thanks to pollution from commercial shipping, and accounted for these prior-pollutant factors in their analysis.

The study details how certain volatile compounds of the oil evaporate within hours, contaminating the overlaying atmosphere. Other toxins dissolve in the seawater, threatening aquatic life faster than the black sludge that has become so iconic for oil spills.

"In its new environment, the oil immediately begins to change its composition, and much of that change happens on the first day," co-author Samuel Arey explained in a statement.

But studying this small oil release, Arey and his colleagues crafted a model of computer data on the effects of an initial spill, hoping to apply this model to more accurately predict the impact of larger spills. This, they say, could prove a valuable tool, if and when disaster strikes again in one of the world's oceans.

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